Dir: Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. US, 2007. 72 minutes.
Shown in the Spotlight Premieres section of SXSW Festival, The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is a powerfully moving documentary about one Iraqi man's mistreatment at the hands of the US military in that infamous hellhole borrowed from Saddam called Abu Ghraib. But anyone likely to watch a film like this already knows that the US occupation of that tragic country has been a ghastly mistake and that Iraqi human rights are routinely trampled upon by the frightened and overwhelmed US forces.
So the question becomes, after the revelations two years ago of the torture, sexual taunting, and even murder that routinely went on in Abu Ghraib, is there anything else to say' The Prisoner answers strongly in the affirmative on several counts. Nevertheless, one wonders what the prospects - either theatrical or television-based - are for this well-made film trying to push its way into an already very crowded field.
Michael Tucker's earlier film was the well-received Gunner Palace (2005), which brilliantly captured the feel of the war and subsequent occupation from the point of view of the invading US troops. During one of the raids he filmed - on a purported terrorist cell composed of four brothers supposedly bent on assassinating the British PM - he was struck by Yunis Abbas, one of the men taken prisoner, who kept insisting that he was only a journalist. Tucker apparently couldn't get Abbas out of his mind, and his new film The Prisoner, which centres on a long interview with the Iraqi journalist detailing his subsequent horrible experiences in prison, is the result.
The film deserves to be seen principally for two reasons. The first is that its subject is an immensely appealing figure, a crushed, humiliated intellectual who has managed to keep his humanist principles and, amazingly, even his sense of humour, intact. The second reason is the directors' choice to visualise many of the scenes described by Abbas through the novel use of surprisingly effective comic-book imagery, which intensifies yet never trivialises what Abbas went through. The filmmakers also cleverly recreate a kind of fictional 'live-action' audio track that is laid over Yunis' interview and which aurally animates it to excellent effect.
An earlier and much shorter version of the film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. When word of this screening got around, Tucker was contacted by one of Abbas's former guards at Abu Ghraib, Benjamin Thompson, who had befriended Yunis and his brothers. The result is an additional 20 minutes of moving footage that not only corroborates everything that Yunis Abbas says, but that also provides telling if indirect evidence, in the person of an obviously shell-shocked Thompson, of the psychological degradations that are being wreaked upon the members of the US military forced into committing inhumane acts in the name of 'national security'. After nine months of isolation and physical and psychological interrogation, Yunis and his brothers were released. Military authorities told Yunis they were 'sorry' for the mistake.
Pepper & Bones
Red Envelope Entertainment (US)
Roco Films (US)
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